LET US all endeavor to suppress a groan at the news that Metro has hired not one but two public relations companies to scrub its calamity-crusted image. A dozen of the world’s finest damage-control specialists would be hard-pressed to patch the wounds that Metro has inflicted on itself.
Public distrust of the transit agency is so deep that passengers may be forgiven for murmuring a prayer — and not one for better public relations — whenever they board a bus or subway train. Throw in a leadership vacuum, rickety finances, flat train ridership and the daily dose of busted escalators and delays, and confidence in Metro crumbles.
The most glaring symptom of the agency’s travails is the Jan. 12 incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station, in which smoke from an electrical mishap, unaccountably blown in the wrong direction by a malfunctioning underground fan, filled a stranded train crowded with riders. One passenger died and dozens were hospitalized.
Scarcely a month later, Metro had enough PR sense to forgo a threatened fare increase and to avoid big cuts in subway service. But the alternative it was left with — siphoning off tens of millions of dollars in spending on long-term projects to plug a hole in the system’s current operating budget — left the impression that the agency is risking its future to make ends meet in the present.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, formerly a member of Metro’s board, thinks the system’s next chief executive should have demonstrated expertise not in transit but in rescuing troubled agencies. So does Maryland’s new governor, Larry Hogan (R), who has promised to shift state funds from transit to roads. Notwithstanding somewhat steadier support from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the agency’s future looks cloudy at best.
Under the recently departed chief executive, Richard Sarles, Metro stressed its supposed gains in cultivating a culture of safety following the Red Line collision in June 2009 that killed eight passengers and a train operator and left scores injured. The latest accident called that ostensible progress into question.
No doubt, Metro’s image could use some burnishing. It hasn’t helped that agency officials have only selectively answered questions about the January mishap, or that Tom Downs, until recently Metro board chairman, initially said there was no problem with the underground fans. In fact, as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said the very next day, the fans had indeed malfunctioned, blowing smoke toward the train rather than drawing it away. The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that and ordered an urgent fix.
Metro faces a hearing in June by the NTSB, which is investigating the smoke incident. Among their other duties, the PR companies — supposedly paid for by Metro’s insurance carriers —are meant to help Metro prepare for those hearings. Passengers can only hope that local and state officials understand that the only reliable way to buff the system’s reputation will be to enhance its safety, performance and finances.